Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Great and Small Things - Torah, Halacha and Metaphysics.

Livyat Chen by R. Levi ben Avraham (henceforth RLBA) continues to amaze me. There is almost no page without a surprising interpretation or idea. Here is another excerpt Paraphrased/translated as usual (in Italics) with my comments in brackets.

The word Torah is applied in most cases, to the rules of proper behavior and improvement of habits. It is similar to “Torat Ha’adam” law of man or “Torat Habayit”, law of the domicile. [In other words Torah needs a qualifier – what kind of Torah? Without one, it could refer to many things but most of the time to rules of behavior and habits]. It is therefore used for practical law such as knowledge of the Talmud. [Because the Talmud contains rules of behavior, it is called Torah].

The reason those who know [only] the Talmud are called “Talmidei Chachamim” – pupils of the wise, as opposed to Chachamim – the wise – because the subjects they know are “small matters”. [He is referring to the Gemara in Sukkah 28a brought down in Rambam Yesodei Hatorah 4:13 –

ולחם ובשר זה, הוא לידע ביאור האסור והמותר וכיוצא בהן משאר המצוות. ואף על פי שדברים אלו, דבר קטן קראו אותם חכמים, שהרי אמרו חכמים דבר גדול מעשה מרכבה, ודבר קטן הוויה דאביי ורבא

`Bread and meat', is the study of what is permitted, what is forbidden, and other commandments. These matters were called small matters by the Sages, as they have said, "Mystical and esoteric speculation is a big matter, whereas the debates of Abaye and Rava are small matters".]

[As their knowledge is limited to the small things which are the discussions of Abaye and Rava - Talmudic discourse - they are called “Talmidei” Chachamim.]

Another reason is the Talmud. [A play on the word Talmud – Talmid]. Those who know the “great things” are called the true Chachamim – the wise. [“Great things” – davar Gadol - is metaphysics as per the Gemara in the quote above].

RLBA brings further proof to his understanding from the Gemara in Berachot 57b, which refers to R. Eliezer, R. Ishmael and R. Akivah[1] as Chachamim and to Ben Azai, Ben Zoma and Acher as Talmidei Chachamim. The Gemara in Kiddushin 49b similarly says that if one says he betroths a woman on condition that he is a Talmid, he does not have to be as learned as Ben Zoma and Ben Azai. Just knowing how to answer anything one asks him about in learning suffices. If one says I betroth this woman on condition that I am a Chacham, we do not require him to be like R. Akivah as long as he can answer any question he is asked in wisdom (Chochma).

[RLBA is referring to the Gemara where four went into the orchard, R. Akivah, Ben Azai, Ben Zoma and Acher. All except R. Akivah were damaged. RLBA understands that to mean that they remained Halachist but never graduated to advanced metaphysics. The ones like R. Akivah who were successful in metaphysical speculation are referred to as Chachamim while those that remained with Halacha only as Talmidei Chachamim].

In other contexts, the word Torah refers to philosophy. Thus the Gemara Shabbat 145b states; Why are the Talmidei Chachamim of Bavel notable in their dress? Because they are not Bnei Torah. [Rashi explains that they wear extravagant clothing to garner respect. Their gravitas is not enough.] RLBA understands the Gemara as saying that since they lack philosophical knowledge they are therefore unrefined. They therefore require external accoutrements to garner respect.

[A perfected person is one that is fully integrated. The Mitzvot and the halachot that deal with them are meant to make us into perfect people that will then try to emulate and serve God. Knowing Halachot only is “a small thing”. In fact, Rambam ends that Halacha I quoted earlier:

אף על פי כן, ראויין הן להקדימן: שהן מיישבין דעתו של אדם תחילה, ועוד שהן הטובה הגדולה שהשפיע הקדוש ברוך הוא ליישוב העולם הזה, כדי לנחול חיי העולם הבא. ואפשר שיידעם הכול--גדול וקטן, איש ואישה, בעל לב רחב ובעל לב קצר.

Nevertheless, it is still fitting to study them [the arguments of Abaye and Rava] first, because they settle a man's mind. Furthermore, they are the great good which God gave to this world, by which we can inherit life in the World to Come. It is possible for everyone - adults, children, men, women, those who are narrow-minded and those who are not - to know these matters.

Learning Halacha with the intention to “settle a man’s mind” is the correct thing to do as long as one keeps in mind it is only a stepping-stone.

Why have we not such people anymore? Why have become robots and automatons? I wonder.

[1] In our edition the third person is Rebbi but the Tikkunei Soferim reads R. Akivah.

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